Marco Rose – Borussia Dortmund – Tactical Analysis

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2020-21 was a difficult season for Borussia Dortmund. Off the back of two “nearly” years under Lucien Favre, BVB’s loyal fan-base hoped that 2020-21 would finally be their year to steal the Bundesliga crown. Unfortunately, the club went down a deep spiral before December, resulting in Favre’s inevitable sacking from the club. The Black & Yellows continued to lack confidence in the months that followed under Edin Terzic, and looked destined to finish outside the top four. But as the season came to a close, Dortmund suddenly went on a stunning run of form, securing a third place finish in the table and Dortmund’s first trophy since the days of Thomas Tuchel, in the DFB Pokal. Despite that, Terzic’s role at the club would change to that of Technical Director, and in came a new manager – Marco Rose.

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Four months on from Rose’s first match in charge of the Black & Yellows, BVB continue to find their feet. They’ve already been knocked out of the UEFA Champions League, and recently failed to capitalize on a crucial chance to go top of the table ahead of Bayern Munich. For Dortmund fans, there can only be so much optimism that the club remain in second place, yet again. Sooner or later, they are going to have to challenge for the title again. If not, Marco Rose will end up just being another footnote in a long line of Dortmund failures. So with that, we take an in-depth look at how Marco Rose’s Borussia Dortmund have performed in 2021-22, and what needs to change if the Black & Yellows are to challenge for the title.

SYSTEM OF PLAY: 4-2-3-1

One of Marco Rose’s deepest issues at Borussia Dortmund has been his inability to nail down a consistent formation. It’s one thing to be flexible and change shape based on the game, and even the moment, but it’s another to completely overhaul your team on a game by game basis in experimentation of potential solutions for the future. Rose’s Dortmund have played in a 4-2-3-1, 4-2-2-2, 4-4-2 Diamond, 4-3-3 and 3-4-2-1 this season. The need for change is tough to justify, when they’ve lost just 1 of the 5 league games when playing in Dortmund’s favoured 4-2-3-1 formation, and that loss was against Bayern Munich. Dortmund suffered much in the way of trouble at the beginning of the season through trying to force a 4-4-2 Diamond, which pushed Haaland too far wide and made the team woeful in defensive transitions. They had more success when changing to a Favre styled 3-4-2-1, but the bulk of their success this season has come in a 4-2-3-1, which should be how Rose continues to build his team in the future given what he currently has at his disposal.

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One potential reason for all the fluctuation could be down to Rose’s desire to find the best role for Dortmund’s midfield talisman – Jude Bellingham. The 18-year-old is an incredibly versatile player, who excelled last season as part of a midfield three in Edin Terzic’s 4-1-4-1 or 4-3-3, alongside two other defensively minded midfielders – like Emre Can and Mahmoud Dahoud. Having two defensive players alongside Bellingham allows the Englishman to venture forward as he pleases without too much cause for concern in transition. The midfield maestro can hold a steadier role as part of a midfield two, or even play as an inverted winger. But one of Rose’s biggest problems at the beginning of the season, was playing a more attack-minded midfielder alongside Bellingham and Dahoud in a midfield diamond, such as Julian Brandt, Gio Reyna or Marco Reus. This was a disaster for everyone involved except Bellingham, and Rose has since learned his lesson.

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While Jude Bellingham is an exceptional talent, he is not Dortmund’s best player. Erling Haaland is the most crucial MVP in the side, and has been dearly missed when out injured this season. The Norwegian has scored 13 goals with 5 assists in just 10 Bundesliga matches this season, an unbelievable tally for anyone, let alone someone still just 21-years-old. Marco Reus is the undeniable next best player on the team, and Dortmund would simply be lost without him. His poise, intelligence, and incredible off-the-ball movement help to make Dortmund the incredible attacking weapon that they are, and he’s having a fantastic (knock on wood) injury-free 2021-22 season. Marco Rose’s also allowed a resurgence for Julian Brandt this season, after the young German was exiled from Edin Terzic’s plans in 2020-21. Emre Can and Mahmoud Dahoud make for a steady midfield pairing that can get the best out of Jude Bellingham and his skills further forward, while Axel Witsel remains another solid option for the games Dortmund look to dominate start to finish. Gio Reyna will hopefully come back into Dortmund’s midfield in future weeks, whether it be off the left or centrally. For now, Rose’s relied on new signing Donyell Malen. The Dutchman has carried over his fine form from Euro 2020, although his finishing in front of goal has been dreadful, and he took some time to get going with those around him at the start of the season. But now the 22-year-old appears to be coming good for the Black & Yellows, and has been a useful enough option for Dortmund to deploy up front in the absence of Erling Haaland.

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At the very back, Gregor Kobel’s been one of Dortmund’s bright spots this year, finally giving the Black & Yellows a goalkeeping option that could propel them toward the top of the league. Manuel Akanji has also come on leaps and bounds in the past two seasons, and has been the team’s most consistent defender. Mats Hummels has climbed over his peak but remains a useful weapon in possession and in the air, whilst Raphael Guerreiro continues his fantastic attacking output from left-back. Thomas Meunier has more shortcomings as the right-back in the team, but has in some moments also been one of the better players in the squad. Meunier’s been given greater attacking license under Rose, while Guerreiro’s evidently been given less. This has helped to make for a somewhat balanced defense in recent weeks, particularly when the team deploy a double-midfield pivot actually capable of defending.

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Overall, Dortmund have the makings of something very good in their 4-2-3-1 formation. It would be a miracle if they were to win the league from here, but the Europa League and DFB Pokal are certainly still within reach as Rose’s understanding of his players continues to grow. So with that, let’s now take a look at how Marco Rose has succeeded and failed so far with the Black & Yellows, in our in-depth analysis of the team this season.

BUILD-UP

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Marco Rose comes from the same school of thought as many modern German coaches – wanting complete and utter control over his matches. This means that Dortmund build out from the back according to a few systematic (mixed with a few sporadic) principles of play, and then attempt to win the ball back quickly after losing it. Only Bayern (63.4%) have kept more of the ball than Dortmund this season (60.3%), with the Bavarian giants also the only team to complete more short passes. With usually only one deep-lying midfielder in the side (often to their detriment), BVB build out from the back in a 2+3 shape. Since Dortmund knock the ball around so efficiently, opposition teams rarely press them high. Instead, the Black & Yellows often come up against low-blocks, with rigid lines of compactness shuffling with the play. This allows Dortmund greater ability to stretch the field and expand the depth in between their lines in possession. On goal kicks, they may lessen that expansiveness, as someone like Reus drops in deep, and other attackers remain relatively close to him. When Rose inevitably takes off Marco Reus for his standard 60-70th minute substitution, another man may take the nod of dropping deep, and usually they are not quite as effective in keeping things ticking.

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The centre-backs have been particularly important in circulating the ball around, and luckily for Dortmund, they have two of the best ball-playing centre-backs in the league. Mats Hummels is the one who will look to spice things up most often, and look for longer passes up the field. While Akanji and Hummels are both excellent at hitting short, simple passes, they can also catch the opposition off guard with a looping long ball over the top. Traditionally, it’s been Hummels who’s been the architect, often floating his beauty left-footed long-balls from the left-half-space diagonally over to the right half space. Last season he also made quite the impact at hitting passes in behind the opposition’s defense down the left channels for Erling Haaland or Marco Reus to run onto. But this season, it’s actually been Manuel Akanji growing in long-ball ability and making the most impact. He’s yet to contribute with an assist, but the Swiss international has made marked improvements in his vertical passing, completing over 82% of his attempted long passes. He also leads the team in passes into the final third by quite some distance, and sits only behind Meunier in progressive passes. When you add in the class and composure of Axel Witsel, mixed with Mahmoud Dahoud’s excellent ability and awareness in tight spaces, Dortmund have several men through which they can facilitate their build-up. As a result, Rose’s men rarely lose the ball in their own half, and usually have no issue at progressing the ball into the opposition’s half. But when it comes to building out from the back, their tactics are far more clever and complex.

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The most notable of Marco Rose infused build-up implementations has been the use of Marco Reus dropping deep to pick up possession. While the Dortmund captain has always been hungry for the ball all on his own, this time it’s more systematic and coordinated. Reus will often exchange his higher starting position for Bellingham’s slightly deeper role, as he drifts toward the left and picks up possession. In other years, Guerreiro would normally hold an inverted position on the left higher up the pitch, allowing the Black & Yellows to facilitate much of their build-up toward the right, and then switch play later in the attacking half where the likes of Reus, Sancho and Guerreiro himself linked up. This year, that has been almost the opposite. Thomas Meunier has instead been the one given more attacking license and freedom, as Guerreiro holds his position and helps to facilitate the build-up with Reus, the two-centre-backs and the defensive midfielder. Attacks will then often progress down the right, where Julian Brandt and Meunier can link up in close combinations and find their way toward delivering Erling Haaland a Christmas gift. But it often starts with Dortmund’s desire to find Marco Reus. He ranks behind only Manuel Akanji in the number of times he’s been targeted for a Black & Yellow pass this season, with the team looking to him in all facets of the game.

At this point, you might be thinking – ‘Wouldn’t you want one of your best attackers to stay in an attacking position?’ That is a fair question to ask. But let’s remember two things. The variety at which Dortmund can counter-act their opponent’s press means that the centre-backs can thrust one forward before Reus even has time to drop deep. Next, for long spells in the season, Rose persisted on playing a sole defensive midfielder alongside Bellingham, which allowed opposition clubs to rip Dortmund’s defense apart in transition. Reus’ ability to drift toward the ball regardless of its position means that Dortmund always have one extra man around the ball regardless of its position. To give a comparison, the idea behind Manchester City’s inverted fullbacks is exactly the same. While the concept helps to facilitate build-up structures, overload certain areas of the field and drag the opposition out of their shape, the inverted fullbacks also allow City greater ease at defending in transition. That is something that Dortmund desperately need. When playing a second defensive midfielder in Mahmoud Dahoud or Emre Can, Reus may hold a truer attacking position, knowing the defensive transition piece is already in place.

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It will however be interesting to see what happens when 19-year-old American Gio Reyna returns to the side. Reyna started the season off brightly with 2 goals in 3 matches, before succumbing to injury on international duty. Reyna often dovetailed with Reus in joining build-up structures, playing as a Paul Pogba styled winger in a left-winger-less team. At the time, I wrote about how Reyna’s freedom to roam wherever he desired, allowed others to simply do the same and adopt a left-sided position whenever they personally felt it best to do so. This meant that even Jude Bellingham, as the right-sided central midfielder in the diamond, often floated toward the left wing to work his twinkle toe magic. You can imagine the chaos for the opposition as they try to contend with this, and it’s no surprise Dortmund won that opening game 5-2. But it’s also no surprise they conceded two goals, and lost the next match to Freiburg. Their structures in transition simply weren’t present, and Reyna proved to be somewhat of a liability in playing out from the back. Rose has learned a lot since those opening fixtures, but his quest for attacking football could soon see Dortmund return to the lone-defensive-midfielder ways of the past that hurt them so badly at the start of the season.

ATTACKING TALENT

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Over the years, Dortmund have developed a reputation for playing some of the most exciting, attacking football in Europe. This has been to the extent where their ability to defend has suffered in the process, and the 4-3 or 5-4 score-lines have become more of a laughing stock than worthy of celebration. Marco Rose, as an attack-minded manager, was in that regard, perfect for the project. He started off life in typical Dortmund fashion with a 5-2 victory over Frankfurt, and soon afterward a nail-biting 4-3 win over Leverkusen. But then, something changed. Rose finally read our website (if only that were true), and added another defensive midfielder to the mix. Suddenly, Dortmund stopped conceding so many goals in transition, and started to concede fewer corner kicks, which resulted in fewer corner kick goals (who knew?!). We knew.

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Just like their build-up, Dortmund’s attacking principles involve many permutations of intricacy and creativity, that allow them to dictate the tempo and flow of a match. They can hurt their opposition from any angle, with the right side of the field growing in particular importance since the resurgence of Julian Brandt. Brandt’s career at Dortmund was called into question last season by fans, but the German international has now finally hit his peak as one of Dortmund’s key men in attack. He’s always had it in him to be a superstar, but at the same time, he represented a dying breed of creative number tens, and often needed to be used in central midfield or left wing to make way for Marco Reus. His skillset has always been best used as a purely attacking force, and no previous Dortmund manager could fully unlock that potential (although Lucien Favre had him playing fairly well as the ‘number 8’ in his 3-4-2-1). Always deployed on the left throughout his career, Rose has found a home for the 25-year-old on the right wing instead. His clever movement around the field allows for Dortmund to frequently create overloads down the right, as Reus, Bellingham and Meunier surround him. Dortmund can then work a variety of underlapping and overlapping runs to find their way forward and deliver for Erling Haaland to hammer home.

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Contributing to the balance of the team, you then have the attacking presence of Raphael Guerreiro floating up from left-back, and Donyell Malen / Thorgan Hazard as options to switch play over to the left. These switches are something that Dortmund now do less and less under the influence of Rose, as the team will instead collectively overload one half-space, and combine in tight areas through one-touch combinations and intelligent vertical running. But since the likes of Reyna, Malen and Hazard have no desire to hold a wide left position, plus Guerreiro’s inclinations to underlap rather than overlap, it makes sense why Brandt and Meunier’s attacking influence down the right have grown to extreme heights this season. And who else plays on the right? – Jude Bellingham.

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What’s been the most striking thing under Marco Rose this season is just how much of a risk-taker Jude Bellingham’s become in possession, and how the German manager will often centre his team around the eighteen-year-old. Bellingham’s twinkle toes are impressive for a big man, and he’s often Dortmund’s most active dribbler/carrier. While others will play pretty combinations, Bellingham will simply look to bulldoze his way past the opposition. He can do so by gliding past them with the ball at his feet, or through intelligent vertical runs that push the opposition’s back-line toward their own goal, allowing all the more room for Reus to work his creative magic. The 18-year-old has also stepped up his chance creation this season, assisting 5 goals simply through his ability to seek out dangerous positions and inject intelligent passes at exactly the right moment. He’ll likely never be as creative or incisive as Reus or Brandt, but the fact that he’s assisted the same amount demonstrates an astonishing awareness of space beyond his years. For a Pep Guardiola team, he would likely be an Ilkay Gundogan type of figure – someone whose role is much more about popping up in the right place at the right time, than about creating chances for others doing the popping. When the opposition have to constantly focus their attention on the trickery and intelligence of Reus, but concomitantly the sheer strength and presence of 6’4 Erling Haaland, Bellingham’s ability to seek out space gives the team another dimension. That, more than anything, will be what makes Jude Bellingham one of the world’s best central midfielders in just a few years time…if he isn’t there already.

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As if Dortmund don’t already have enough attacking talent, they also have one of the world’s best strikers in Erling Haaland. Haaland’s physicality and speed make him difficult to stop in isolation, and that’s not even mentioning his astute awareness of space, excellent hold-up play and clinical finishing. Dortmund’s drop in form in the UEFA Champions League coincided with his injury, and it’s undeniable that Haaland makes Dortmund a better attacking outfit. But if you’ve read this website over the years, you already know all of this. So what’s changed about Haaland under Marco Rose this season? Well like Reus, he’s successfully fulfilled a deeper position. No longer chasing long-balls to the same extent, the 21-year-old forward will pick up possession anywhere around the eighteen yard box and then look to progress it forward for others venturing forward to join him. Thorgan Hazard, Julian Brandt and Jude Bellingham are all clever enough with their movement that they can all surge past Haaland in different moments, exposing an opposition back-line attempting to rigidly track the Norwegian. Like Jude Bellingham, Erling Haaland has assisted 5 goals this season, despite his chance creation being relatively low compared to others in the side. There’s no denying that Erling Haaland wants to be the main man, but his assist tallies would suggest he’s equally capable of drifting wide, drifting deep and allowing others to push forward and take on central positions instead. For this, Marco Rose and his players have achieved a tremendous amount of attacking balance this season, in what should otherwise be a very uncoordinated attack with players constantly competing for each other’s spaces. There’s been none of that since Rose shifted out of the 4-4-2 Diamond, and the team have only excelled in using their overloads for good.

DEFENSIVE PRINCIPLES

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Marco Rose made a name for himself with his intense press and possess style of football at RB Salzburg and Borussia Monchengladbach. To little surprise, Dortmund’s emphasis on pressing immediately picked up upon his arrival. The Black & Yellows have made significant leaps in counter-pressing and successful pressures applied, but they’ve also continued to ship goals for fun. While Dortmund have a myriad of players capable of pressing, the systems in place often fail in application. As we talked about with Jesse Marsch’s Salzburg last season, pressing needs to be a collective art. If even one player is a few seconds late to the party, the whole system can crumble. And that’s what you often see with Rose’s Dortmund. Haaland may go, Reus and Hazard may follow…Brandt may even complete the diamond, but then the depth left in between the lines in behind is out of sync. Or on other occasions, they press well for the opening twenty-thirty minutes of the game, and then realize their resources are going to be best saved for attack, and slow everything down again. It also hasn’t helped that Rose has frequently shifted pressing structures on a game by game or moment by moment basis, from 4-4-2 to 4-2-2-2 to 4-2-1-2 to 4-2-3-1.

Beyond a lack of coordination, Dortmund also simply don’t have the personnel to press like Tuchel’s Chelsea or Klopp’s Liverpool. The best pressing teams on the planet possess mobile, ball-winning defensive midfielders, and dynamic fullbacks who could challenge in an Olympic 100-metre dash. Dortmund have one of the slowest midfield pairings in the league (Dahoud and Witsel), and arguably the slowest back-line in the league, with only Akanji reaching any consistent speed of note. Emre Can will always be a key engine for the team when deployed, but doesn’t see enough game time; and the club sold the other midfielder of a similar mold in Thomas Delaney. Julian Brandt, as we mentioned already, is part of a dying breed of attacking midfielders that still occasionally play attacking midfield, (i.e. he doesn’t possess the energy, intensity or speed to press like a winger should) and Donyell Malen took months to fully understand his role both in and out of possession.

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Marco Rose, to his credit, has recognized almost all of this. He’s worked to fix a lot of their early season (and UEFA Champions League) failures, to the point where they now boast the second most successful press in the league. Only Koln have won the ball back within five seconds of applying pressure to a higher degree than Dortmund’s 35%. So although they don’t press that much, they’ve become more resilient in winning the ball when they do. Their counter-pressing has been the most impressive, with the overloads they create in attack often helping to facilitate quick returns in possession. Bellingham and Reus have been the two leading the charge and accumulating the highest percentages, while Manuel Akanji has been absolutely extraordinary for his team, often as a last-ditch defender. The Swiss international has helped his team win the ball a whopping 52% of the time after applying direct pressure. Safe to say that’s the best in the league by quite some margin, highlighting just how important his injection of pace and power is to Dortmund’s frail back-line.

But beyond Akanji and occasional bright moments from others like Bellingham or Hummels, Dortmund’s defending in their own half is a real concern. They counter-press more frantically in their own half, and their heavy mix of expansiveness and positional rotations during build-up phases can often leave them cruelly exposed on silly giveaways. These issues have been compounded all the more when Akanji or Hummels suffer through injury, making Dortmund’s life all the more difficult.

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At this point, you probably don’t need me to tell you that Dortmund’s defense have a mix of positive and negative characteristics. Before this weekend’s horrific loss to Hertha BSC, the Black & Yellows had only conceded two or more goals in a league match to Bayern Munich, since September’s win over Union Berlin. Some of the trends for their poor defensive play are clear, and the omission of Mats Hummels or Manuel Akanji from the team are particularly obvious starting points. Rose has persisted with Axel Witsel as a make-shift centre-back in Hummels’ stead, which is always detrimental given the lack of pace and positional awareness the Belgian possesses. When you combine that severe lack of pace in the back-line as a whole with Dortmund’s expansiveness, it’s no surprise that they concede so many goals after losing the ball in their own third. Gaps in between Dortmund’s centre-backs and fullbacks are one of the most easily identifiable areas opposition clubs can hurt the Black & Yellows, and the lack of coordination in transition usually means players are in a constant flux of stepping out of their role to cover for someone else. This has been a problem since before Rose arrived, and one that he’s only made worse since joining due to his insufficient tactical and personnel choices when key players become unavailable. It’s safe to say Dortmund’s defense are still an unfortunate laughing stock, and that reinforcements in January would be more than welcome to strengthen Rose’s back-line.

CONCLUSION

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Borussia Dortmund have not had the best of times so far under Marco Rose, but many fans remain hopeful that the German coach can turn things around and provide better alternatives for the future. We are less convinced, given that just about anything innovative he’s tried has failed to pay dividends. The likes of Julian Brandt and Jude Bellingham have improved in recent months, and the team have stepped up in terms of counter-pressing and successful pressure percentages. But at the same time, the Black & Yellows have crashed out of the Champions League, and continue to concede goals for fun whenever any of their key pieces are missing. That suggests Marco Rose has not put enough systems in place to properly win matches, and that his team are instead overly-reliant on select individuals to carry them to the top. Second place is fine for now, but Dortmund fans don’t want to see Bayern Munich continue their dominance year after year. Sooner or later, something is going to have to change. That change might just need to be Marco Rose.


So there it is! A tactical analysis of Marco Rose’s Borussia Dortmund, and why the club might have to part ways with the German manager soon. Be sure to check out more of our analyses, and follow on social media @mastermindsite. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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